That first taste of being the boss can be a heady one. Apparently, most execs yearn for the corner office, according to a Korn Ferry study, but less than two in five execs has what it takes to be a successful CEO.

Korn Ferry analyzed leadership assessment data on more than 2.5 million executives to determine how many aspired to be CEO, and how many of those possessed the near-essential “learning agile” quality that leads to C-Suite success.

What Korn Ferry found was that 87 percent of managers want to be CEO, and 96 percent have at least some interest in the job. The result offers a sharp contrast to another recent study that found that few employees in the general workforce population aspire to that vaunted position.

Digging deeper into the data, the researchers concluded that just 15 percent demonstrated the “learning agile” characteristic — a key predictor of success and critical attribute of effective, breakthrough leaders,” Korn Ferry said.

Other information Korn Ferry shared from its research:

  • 59 percent of respondents said C-level jobs are more desirable than five years ago;
  • The three most desired C-suite jobs are CEO, COO and CMO;
  • The three most challenging jobs are CEO, COO and CFO;
  • Only a third of those surveyed rated the CFO position as desirable.

Back to that “learning agile” business: Korn Ferry defines it as “the willingness and ability to learn from experience and then apply those lessons to succeed in new situations. Leaders who are learning agile continuously seek new challenges, solicit direct feedback, self-reflect, and get jobs done resourcefully. Learning agility is a critical predictor of leadership success — above intelligence and education.”

This quality, Korn Ferry says, was best described in a study by the Center for Creative Leadership that became a book, Lessons of Experience. Korn Ferry said the book’s authors concluded “that the most successful executives were able to move out of their comfort zone, take risks, learn from mistakes, and begin anew as they encountered new assignments. Their technical and functional expertise, which was valued at lower levels, gave way to building teams, inspiring confidence, and developing strategic goals.” However, experts say only about 15 percent of lower-level leaders are learning agile.

“While the majority of executives say they aspire to leadership in the C-Suite, effectiveness there is easier said than done,” says Jane Stevenson, vice chairman, board and CEO services practices, Korn Ferry. “Today’s global marketplace is characterized by slow growth and fast change. The speed and complexity of this business environment means that leaders are faced with making decisions without complete information. Perfect information is almost impossible considering perpetual demographic shifts, technological and regulatory changes and pockets of geopolitical instability. To succeed leaders must have a high quotient of learning agility.”

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